At The Dawn Of Good Government

December 29, 2012

Kathy Sheehan announces her run for mayor of Albany, another challenger hovers and the Treasurer’s office is now wide open

The presidential elections are barely over and already the City of Albany is gearing up for a mayoral election. If you don’t want to know about it then too bad. Unless you hide in a box for the next nine months or so, you will hear about it. So you might as well pay attention and you might as well register as a Democrat if you want your vote to count.

I’m talking about the September 2013 Democratic Party Primary, which in the City of Albany and lately in the surrounding suburbs is almost always the deciding election, the November general election being merely a rubber stamp. Once upon a time back in the day the Primary voters always obediently voted for Old Boy Democrats. Occasionally a “dissident Democrat” would challenge the Old Boys and even more rarely win, but that was at most an aberration.

Not any longer. These days a majority of the Democratic Primary voters are a select well-informed and independent group. As we clearly saw this past September, the best way for a candidate to win the Primary with voters like these is to demonstrate competence and a fair mastery of the pressing issues. The candidates in this last Primary who relied on vague slogans and negative attacks were rejected by this select group, and we can expect the same in 2013.

Kathy Sheehan Announces Her Candidacy For Mayor Of Albany, Washington Park, Nov. 17, 2012 Kathy Sheehan Announces Her Candidacy For Mayor Of Albany, Washington Park, Nov. 17, 2012

The big news on the mayoral front is that City of Albany Treasurer Kathy Sheehan has announced that she is running for mayor. This was not what you would call a surprise to anyone who follows this sort of thing, Ms. Sheehan’s intentions have been common knowledge in political circles for about a year. I would say that she made her official announcement at the earliest possible opportunity, that is, shortly after the presidential elections.

She chose a sunny Saturday afternoon November 17 in front of the Moses statue in Washington Park to announce. I thought that was pretty risky expecting the weather to cooperate like that, but it did. Ms. Sheehan is generally anything but a risk taker, but I suppose if you plan for all the things that you can plan for then it makes the occasional calculated risk plausible. Anyway, she had an indoor venue reserved downtown just in case.

From what I saw and from the photos that I took I would guess that about 250 people came out for the announcement. Some of the same old activists and political junkies were there, but most of the crowd was composed of people that I did not know. If you consider that the people who attend these sort of things are the people who care enough to show up, then this looked like a very good start for her campaign.

Kathy sheehan Waits For The Applause To Subside Kathy Sheehan Waits For The Applause To Subside

Right near the beginning of her remarks she declared, “Let me make one thing clear. I’m not running against anyone – I’m running for mayor. And with your support I will win.” In fact this was the first thing she said to the crowd after the cheering had subsided after she made the official “I’m Kathy Sheehan and I’m here to announce that I’m running for mayor” statement.

I heard that. For much too long the City has been divided into two camps, those who support the current mayor and those who want to get rid of Him. Not since 1997 have the voters been presented with a convincing alternative to the incumbent, a challenger who can win and who at the very least is capable of running the City. This was certainly true during the last mayoral race in 2009, when two challengers emerged who bumbled and fought with each other and whose campaigns eventually collapsed in penniless ennui, first one then the other.

Ms. Sheehan’s 2013 candidacy is, as they say, a game changer. In her short time as Treasurer she has transformed the office from an embarrassingly old fashioned tool of corruption into an efficient 21st century operation that all of a sudden produces new significant revenue for the City. And she did this without mass layoffs, rather she brought in new managers and shifted longterm employees to other positions without cutting salaries.

One might ask, why wasn’t this done before? I would answer, we’ve never had anyone run the department who thought like this before, and we’ve never had a Treasurer who was strong willed enough to defy the Old Boy political machine. As a long suffering taxpayer, I’d like to see this kind of benign efficiency spread to all departments of City government, and I’d like to see it done as soon as possible.

Kathy Sheehan And Husband Bob Sheehan Kathy Sheehan And Husband Bob Sheehan

But the problems of Albany City government go beyond mere inefficiently run departments. The structural problem is that the departments have no way to communicate with each other except in a limited fashion through the department heads, but mostly the departments must communicate through the executive, the mayor. In current business parlance, each department is stuck in it’s own “silo,” which makes cooperative planning across Albany City government impossible.

As for why we are saddled with this leftover 19th Century model, it is not by accident but it is most certainly by design. Isolation is a form of top down control, if all communication must pass through the mayor’s office then the mayor makes all the interdepartmental decisions and retains total control of everybody and everything inside City Hall. Stifling interdepartmental communication is also a way of preventing alliances from forming that might end up challenging the power at the top.

The Crowd Listens Carefully To Kathy The Crowd Listens Carefully To Kathy

Kathy Sheehan addressed this issue succinctly in her announcement speech in Washington Park. She cited her experience as a vice president and general counsel (she has a degree from Albany Law) at Intermagnetics, a medical device manufacturer:

When I came to City Hall three years ago, it reminded me of the company I started working for back in 1996. Intermagnetics was a pretty good business, located just up the road in Latham. The problem was we were stuck. We weren’t growing and we were losing out to our competitors. We had a culture that resisted change and wasn’t accountable. When something went wrong, everyone blamed somebody else — some other department.

So I became part of a new leadership team and together, we completely transformed the business by breaking down barriers between departments, empowering our employees and creating a Boundaryless Culture — no more excuses, no more walls, just hard work and a strong drive to deliver excellence every day. I’ve used that experience to professionalize the Treasurer’s office, make property tax collections more efficient and implement collection systems that are accountable and fair to everyone.